Taking Responsibility for Others
by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
Returning from umrah in Mecca last Sunday, and walking through Waterloo Station on my way to the Eurostar terminal, I was wondering whether I should catch up with British news after a week of access to only one English-language newspaper - the Arab News. There was a part of me which was reluctant to head for W.H. Smith before boarding my train to Paris; after almost two days and nights of transcendent clarity in the sacred precincts of the Haram my mind and spirit felt free of the dispiriting distractions and demoralising controversies which can beset us as we struggle to embody our faith under the spotlight of disproportionate media attention in an increasingly hostile environment.
Well, despite my trepidation at what fresh controversies might be waiting for me, I succumbed, and headed off to catch my train with a thick wad of Sunday newspapers under my arm. In the Haram, one's whole attention is effortlessly focused on only One Reality (Qul Huwallahu 'Ahad, 'Allahus Samad); the challenge comes when one leaves and strives to hold that taqwa, that consciousness and loving awe of God, amidst the fragmentation to which we are subjected (and to which we subject ourselves!) in our daily lives.
In the Haram, I had realised with all my being that within that sanctuary, if one makes the intention to surrender everything, then everything falls away by the Grace of God, and one is left only with the indelible impression of that One transcendent and imperishable Reality. The first time I walked into the precincts of the Haram in 2000, it was as if I was over-awed by the place and by the majesty and absolute singularity represented by the Ka'bah. I seemed to shrink to nothing as I circled it and I completely forgot all the prayers I had laboriously learnt in Arabic! I was reminded at that time of the Scots poet Robbie Burns's famous lines: "The best laid plans of mice and men always go awry". I also recalled the wise Egyptian proverb: "The camel has his plans; the Camel Driver has his". It was enough for me simply to BE there, to strive to be fully conscious of being there and to aspire to understand with one’s heart what that called one to become as a fully human being.
This time, I felt I had come home, and I was aware not only of the majesty of the place but also its heart-stopping beauty. As I leaned against the Ka'bah with my hands on the kiswah, it was as if I had come to the very Centre of the universe, paradoxically both utterly unfathomable and yet closer to me than my jugular vein. At that moment, my Creator seemed palpably more close than far, more intimate than remote.
It also came home to me that Islam is really very simple. In the Haram, it cannot be otherwise, for there, at the qibla, the point of orientation, we are returned to the primordial simplicity of our essential nature. In English the word " orientation" is directly related to the word "origin" and the word "simple" goes back to a root which also produced the words "single" and "same". To be "simple" is to be "single" and undivided, a reflection of tawhid, the Divine Unity, unchanging at the core of our identity, true to our deepest Selves.
It is no accident that the word "identity" comes from Latin idem, meaning "the same", although this does not of course imply that we should all become homogenised and all diversity obliterated. The Qur'an makes it very clear that diversity is a divine gift to mankind. "And among his wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colours..." (30:22) "To each community among you We have appointed a law and a way of life. And if God had so willed, He could have made you one community, but He willed it otherwise in order to test you." (5:48) "We have made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another." (Qur'an 49:13)
No, the "sameness", singularity or simplicity at the core of our being is that unity within diversity which allows us to respect and understand differences from the standpoint of our divinely rooted human nature. This requires an attitude that goes beyond the unchallenging mediocrity of mere tolerance and reaches out, in the inspiring words of Albert Einstein, to "widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
It was the late Shaykh Zaki Badawi who warned that we Muslims should not bury ourselves under what he called the "mountain of detail" which can shackle us to unbending formalisms, to sterile disputes about the law, its interdictions, prescriptions, prohibitions and rulings, and ultimately to the reduction of Islam to the beard and the scarf. Weighed down solely by the "law", or what we may mistakenly believe the law to be, we are no longer able to emerge into the fresh air to find that simple, broad and deep Islam, the broad and humane path which leads to water, its true essence and spirit.
You might have guessed that with these reflections I have been warding off the moment when I have to tell you that I sat down in my seat on the train and opened the first newspaper. And you might be wondering why I have given this piece the title "Taking Responsibility for Others".
Let me explain. As the train pulled out of Waterloo, and I began to relish the thought of leaving the urban jungle for the calm of life in the French countryside, I opened the Independent on Sunday, and there, leaping out at me was a prominent article entitled "Reid prepares 'script of British values' to win over Muslims". A draft of this script, we are told, defines British values as "respect for the law", "freedom of speech", "equality of opportunity" and "taking responsibility for others".
Now, we might, whether we are Muslim or non-Muslim, quibble about such things as the required balance in a mature and civilised society between freedom of speech and our responsibility not to offend, inflame and incite (and acres of newsprint have been written on this issue since the furore over the Danish Cartoons), but it is absolutely right that as British citizens we should be expected to adhere to these four principles or values, even if we can legitimately engage in debate about what they mean. Even the one which might lead to wounded sensibilities – freedom of speech – is, as Tariq Ramadan rightly advises, "not negotiable".
But the value which most aroused my interest was "taking responsibility for others". Other articles in my wad of newspapers, including one in the Sunday Times entitled "Islamists infiltrate four universities", suggested to me that the Muslim context for Reid's emphasis on social responsibility was the problem of "radicalisation" of Muslim youth, and the responsibility of the Muslim community to deal with it from within.
Outside this pointed and topical Muslim context for "taking responsibility for others" (a big issue in itself which is beyond the scope of this article) what immediately struck me was the major contribution to wider society that can be offered by Muslim values. It was not difficult to find in my wad of newspapers and periodicals a litany of evidence of serious breakdown in social responsibility amidst British society as a whole. Presumably, Dr Reid's list of British values applies to all of us within these shores and not just to Muslims.
And yet, in page after page, I read of dire social problems which seemed to confirm the statement attributed (if only apocryphally) to Margaret Thatcher that "there is no such thing as society". "Parents powerless to bring up their children", thundered the Observer as I entered the Channel Tunnel, citing the alarm of Beverley Hughes, the Minister for Children and Families, and reminding me of that earlier report which described British teenagers as "the worst in Europe" and emphatically blamed the breakdown of "inter-generational interaction" for this deteriorating situation.
In Britain, "Alcohol kills 22,000 a year (not the 8,000 the government would have you believe)" proclaimed the Independent as we reached top speed on French soil. 60 people now die every day from drink, and the charity Alcohol Concern warns that ministers are massively underestimating the problem. The socially responsible answer? Extend licensing hours! And how to "take responsibility for others" undergoing the misery caused by addictive gambling? Build a new swathe of massive casinos!
Elsewhere in my newspapers, I read of dire mental health problem amongst young people, with suicidal depression afflicting younger and younger children; an epidemic of compulsive disorders amongst teenage girls; widespread obesity; rampant bullying in schools; neglect, mockery and abuse of the elderly in hospitals and care homes; assaults on teachers, nurses and other public servants; house prices beyond the reach of already debt-ridden and stressed-out young people with total national credit card debt in excess of a trillion pounds (70% of the total debt in the whole of Europe); unremitting decline in the quality of television programmes...by the time we pulled into Paris Gare du Nord, I was reeling. And no, I'm not just one of those grumpy old men.
If "responsibility for others" is invoked as a British value for dealing with radicalisation in the Muslim community, then I would also like to suggest that the best Muslim social values can properly be invoked as a solution to many of the problems in wider society. When it comes to what Dr. Reid regards as the "British" value of "taking responsibility for others", the great majority of Muslims, through their strong family ties, socially responsible behaviour, and ethical values, can offer many lessons to the community at large.
We should all be talking about how Muslims can offer solutions and not always be regarded as the "problem". Ask ourselves: what have we done today to reach out to British people, whatever their faith, culture or ethnicity, in offering those socially responsible values either in deeds or in a language which makes sense to them? In doing so, perhaps we can reignite that supposedly British value of "taking responsibility for others", which seems at such risk all around us.